Working Towards a Level Playing Field for All Students

With the challenges in local schools continually in the headlines, it is clear that Houston and cities across the U.S. need practical, workable solutions to a host of complicated, systemic problems.

Rice sociology professor Ruth Lopez Turley, who is both pragmatic and hopeful about improvement in Houston schools, is focused on uncovering root causes for educational inequity and closing a historic achievement gap that robs promising students of opportunities to get ahead.

In many ways, her research is personal. “I grew up very poor, and that is a big reason why I do this work. I happened to get lucky when the right people came into my life at the right time to guide me through the educational system. I’m extremely grateful for that, but we shouldn’t base the futures of so many children on luck. It needs to be systematically available to all students.”

Trained at Stanford and Harvard, Turley initially studied educational inequity by working within the traditional academic research model. However, she found that none of her research was affecting the schools or student populations she was determined to help. In a bold step, she came to Rice in 2010 with the sole intent of moving education research outside of academic journals and lecture halls and into the schools and districts that need answers to difficult problems.

In 2011, Turley founded the Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC) within the Kinder Institute for Urban Research as a research partnership between Rice and the Houston Independent School District (HISD). HERC’s goal was to produce data-driven, timely and equity-minded results for decision makers. For the first time, a research institution was asking HISD, “What do you need?” and then partnering with them to deliver solutions.

“I founded HERC because I wanted to do research in a different way. I wanted to make sure that research was impactful. The answer was to connect the research directly to education decision-makers.”

 —Ruth Lopez Turley, professor of sociology and director of the Houston Education Research Consortium

HERC now works with 11 school districts in the Houston area. “On the one hand, we have school districts all over the country that collect massive amounts of data but have extremely limited research ability,” Turley explains. “On the other hand, we have our nation’s top research institutions that have unparalleled research capacity but are not sharing their findings with decision makers.”

Turley and her team of researchers and data analysts are intent on changing this paradigm. Several years ago, HISD began paying for students’ Advanced Placement (AP) test fees and significantly increased access to AP courses. However, this expansion in student participation also resulted in AP test scores that fell well below the national average — scores that were starkly divided along racial/ethnic and economic lines. In response, HERC, with district partners and colleagues at OpenStax and the Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, designed Project Equip, a collaborative study that leverages sociological analysis, teacher training, machine learning, and digital textbooks and tools to engage students and teachers in a new curriculum experience.

The alliance between these organizations at Rice means a commitment to changing the future of education. The Glasscock School is providing professional development to the 17 teachers participating in the study. Part of this training includes instruction on implementing OpenStax Tutor, an interactive learning platform that uses machine learning to adapt to the needs of individual students. At the conclusion of the year-long study, HERC and OpenStax will analyze the resultant data and make specific recommendations to HISD.  (Learn more about Project Equip inside this newsletter.)

Project Equip is a glimpse into the potential for research to improve education in the city of Houston. These Rice partners, among others, are committed to developing methods and tools to close the achievement gap.  “Equality means giving everyone the same resources,” Turley reminds us. “Equity often means giving more to those in greater need. Our goal is to give each student the opportunities they need to be successful.”

To learn more about supporting HERC, contact Megan Dillingham, communications and development manager at or 713-348-4171.


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